Another coffee-table paperweight, Mark Amery

New Zealand Painting: a concise history
Michael Dunn
Auckland University Press, $99.99,
ISBN 1869402979

There’s a story that’s been hanging around a while now like a bad smell. Once upon a time, the story goes, painting died. Bloated and fat, its arteries choked up with hardened old oil and acrylic, painting just simply stopped moving forward. The canvas as the field upon which crucial cultural ideas were progressed was rolled up and stored away.

This was the pronouncement in the 1980s. Following one last extravagant neo-expressionistic paint-slinging party, attended by a swarm of wealthy buyers – Versace vultures picking at the over-inflated remains of modernism – palettes and brushes were set alight in one great bonfire of the vanities. When the smoke cleared, it appeared as if every corporate worth its salt sported a suite of nice non-politically threatening poetic abstracts. Every time the lift doors open in one of those pencil-case towers, I still expect to come face to face with a Gretchen Albrecht hemisphere print.

While internationally the talk now is of painting making a postmodern comeback, here in New Zealand at least painting never really went away. Despite all our claims of internationalism since the 1970s and of reaction against regionalism, our art history has retained its own particular trajectory.

As Michael Dunn’s book illustrates, our history couldn’t help but be what it is. Our 19th century art was dominated by colonial proprietorial concerns about         capturing the landscape, and much of the 20th with either a timid following of English conservative modernism or the realist regionalism of painters such as Angus and Sutton. Arguably, it is only with the likes of McCahon and Woollaston (and then a burgeoning contemporary scene in the 1960s) that we really started to find our own way forward through our art. Paint has continued to be a handy material for the job – the number of shades of sky blue, storm grey, pasture green and mud brown these artists have given us!

With the lead of McCahon, Walters, Mrkusich and the Tovey generation of contemporary Maori artists, we began to find our own formal poetry in the abstract, and the generations that have followed since the 1970s have acted in reaction and relation to these roots. While we have no longer had to rely so much on reproductions, our painters have continued to work through their concerns at their own practice’s pace. By the 1990s painting was starting to feel like a truly indigenous activity.

For these reasons Michael Dunn’s New Zealand Painting: a concise history, first published in 1989, deserves this “revised and expanded” version only 15 years later. The book’s original thematic chapters and accounts of living artists have been amplified, and there is the addition (overdue) of a chapter on contemporary Maori and Pacific Island painters.

It strikes me that, critiquing art history books, it’s easy to shoot the text so full of holes that it sinks as steadily as a colander – with the fundamental strengths of the book left unstrained. In the present case I’m not sure I can avoid this, so I’ll start by providing some buoyancy.

Dunn’s book remains an indispensable aid to the study of our art history, and Dunn himself remains one of our pre-eminent art historians. Writing in a lively, accessible manner, he avoids getting bogged down in the detail. With great clarity, fluidity and definition, he keeps the history moving with intelligent and succinct comment. In addition, in its handsome, revised hardback form New Zealand Painting provides an excellent coffee-table companion to his New Zealand Sculpture: a history (which I reviewed in the June 2003 issue of New Zealand Books). The illustrations are generous and the design strong and clear.

However, I find myself frustrated by the ongoing lack in our art history of any real appraisal of the particularity of our painting tradition – the way our painting has continued to be bound by or has reacted to geo-political and social issues. I long for a more considered look at the place of painting within our art history, and the many threads across it (as considered, for example, in Te Papa’s Dreamcollectors exhibition or in the seminal 1992 Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art).

In Dunn’s updated edition there is little discussion of how contemporary painting responds to the particularities of our past and present position, and the issues pertaining to painting’s status as a medium. Likewise I wanted more discussion of the shunning of modernism when, for example, Frances Hodgkins’ paintings were receiving acclaim in Melbourne. I wanted more than a cursory look at how contemporary Maori painting has, like contemporary Aboriginal art, shaken up modernism’s endgame with painting. Generally, I wanted more of the social, political and historical context within which all our artists have operated. For an example of the richness of this sort of discussion, I recommend art historian Damien Skinner’s interview with Don Binney in Don Binney: nga manu/nga motu – birds/islands (2003) vis à vis the 1960s-90s.

I continue to find the thematic chapter structure of New Zealand Painting problematic. It’s as if the author is trying to have it several ways. The early chapters follow landscape painting chronologically through two different time periods before considering “Images of the Maori 1840-1914” and moving into a blanket “Art in the 1890s”. This is followed by chapters based around very broad styles (regionalism, abstraction etc). It’s an inconsistent approach which uncomfortably shunts back and forth in time while also often divorcing artists from their own social and cultural environment and unevenly illuminating their careers.

The artists often end up in the service of these rather broad themes at the expense of more considered appraisals of their careers. Dunn’s discussion of regionalism, for example, pitches discussion of the work of Rita Angus primarily around the landscape. This is at the expense of her portraiture and her own distinct journey as a painter. Her later career is dealt with briefly under “women’s art”. Likewise midcareer painter Seraphine Pick’s work is dealt with under “women’s art” rather than in the context of her own generation of artists. Among these, such leading contemporaries as Tony De Lautour, Saskia Leek and Michael Harrison (all of whom would give some context to her work) don’t even rate a mention. Bill Hammond, clearly one of the most significant New Zealand painters of our time, rates a paragraph orientated around his bird paintings. Personally, I find this astonishing.

Perhaps I’m naive, but reconsidering Dunn’s history afresh leaves me hungry for a new kind of New Zealand art history book. A wider net needs to be cast to let us discover the revealing, surprising incidental details outside the broad sweeping brushstrokes of the currently accepted historical account. This account discusses 19th century painting only in relation to landscape, to Maori portraiture, and to the professional painter. Left out are folk and naive traditions, and the evolution of painting by Maori within the marae (the latter considered important enough for Dunn to consider in his introduction but not in the body of the book).

We now have enough paperweights for our coffee tables. Let’s have some histories of New Zealand art which don’t see the need to call themselves “concise”, which admit that true objectivity may be beyond them and are, like the history books of Jamie Belich and Michael King, absorbing, intelligent page-turners that wrestle with the issues about what makes our traditions distinctive.


Mark Amery is visual arts commentator for the Dominion Post.


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Posted in Art, History, Non-fiction, Review
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